Youth Connection hosting Down on the Bayou

China Spring High School students taking care of RealCare babies. Left to right Kailey Loechel, Alex Froneberger and Bianca Price. Courtesy Photo

Youth Connection is serving up Down on the Bayou, a Cajun-zydeco festival, to raise funds for the nonprofit’s efforts to encourage positive life choices for all youth in McLennan County. The event will be from 7-11 p.m. on Saturday in the Phoenix Ballroom in downtown Waco.

Down on the Bayou will feature authentic Cajun food, zydeco music from Classie Ballou and the Family Band and a silent auction with items that have been donated.

“Our funding goes to help the kids right here in our own community,” said Carolyn Nichols, Youth Connection executive director. “Many of the kids we work with are not coming from the best of situations.”

Youth Connection serves the youth of Waco-McLennan County to facilitate the development of self-worth, educational attainment and positive life choices, according to their website. The nonprofit is able to achieve this through their afterschool program, teen mother visits, real care baby project and their annual conference.

The after school program, Too Cool for Trouble, at La Vega Junior High School offers youth educational activities to teach good character traits and personal wellness. The goal of the program is to provide youth with skills such as goal setting, leadership and responsibility.

Springfield, Ill., senior and intern at Youth Connection, Justine Dietz, said she has been teaching the importance of respect, empathy and honesty to the seventh and eighth grade students in the afterschool program. She said she creates activities and games to engage the students.

“It’s been great to see how students are warming up to me,” Dietz said. “They want to be known, and want to have their voices heard, so it’s been great in that way to see them learning and growing.”

Youth Connection also visits teen mothers at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical center throughout the week to connect them with programs that can help with providing necessary resources such as diapers and a car seat, how to continue their education and encourage family support.

Dietz said visiting the teen mothers was interesting because each faces different circumstances.

“There was one mother that we saw, and she just seemed very interested in everything we were saying,” Dietz said. “We were coming alongside her and equipping her with the information that she needed.”

Nicholas said she once worked with a teen mother who did not finish the eighth grade and Nicholas could not get the girl to understand the importance of continuing her education. Nicholas was finally able to convince the girl she needed to go back to school after a series of questions about what the girl wanted for her baby.

“It’s really important to me that we try to get through to them in that room because it’s a one-time opportunity, and I take that very seriously,” Nichols said.

Youth Connection’s most popular initiative is their RealCare baby project where they rent RealCare babies to schools in McLennan County. A RealCare baby is a simulated baby that cries and needs feeding, burping, diapering and rocking. The life-like simulation helps young men and women make responsible and informed decisions about becoming parents.

According the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Texas’s teen pregnancy rate is 41 per 1,000 girls ages 15-19, which is the fifth highest in the nation. The national rate is 26.5.

“Would you be ready to take care of a baby at this time in your life?” Nichols asked rhetorically. “Believe it or not, a lot of high school level students feel like they could. It’s a real mind changer when they have to get up all night and take care of that baby and go to school the next day.”

Dawn Wilson, a China Spring High School teacher, uses the RealCare babies in her human growth and development class. Wilson has been using baby simulations in her class for 16 years. Students are required to take care of the baby for 64 hours either during the week or the weekend.

“RealCare baby is intended to help students understand each infant is unique and requires a great deal of love and attention, each infant’s demands are unpredictable but must be met promptly and parenting impacts your lifestyle profoundly and should only be taken on by someone prepared for that responsibility,” Wilson said.

The program is made to be as realistic as possible. Students are required to feed, burp, rock and change the baby’s diaper on a 24-hour schedule. Every interaction between the student and the RealCare baby is registered through the baby. The RealCare babies also record lack of head and neck support, rough handling, shaken baby syndrome, temperature, clothing changes and length of time the baby sits in a car seat or carrier.

“Most of the students that take the class say they don’t want a baby any time soon,” Wilson said. “Students have the tendency to see the cute side of a baby, but they’re not there at night when you have to get up in the middle of the night.”

The RealCare baby project also includes presentations to students about the effects of drugs and shaking babies. Students have the opportunity to see and hold simulated babies that have altered facial profiles or other consequences such as blindness or brain damage.

Wilson said each RealCare baby and the additional equipment costs about $1,000, so small schools are not able to afford it. China Spring High School along with other schools in McLennan County are able to rent the simulated babies for free through Youth Connection, and the annual fundraiser is able to offer schools that opportunity.

Youth Connection also hosts “Moving Forward: Effective Ways to Reach Our Youth” each spring for professionals who work with young people. It covers new programs and strategies each year. Past initiatives included bullying and dangers of the Internet.

Nichols said it is important to bring opportunities like these to local nonprofits that otherwise would not be able to afford attending conferences out of town.

In 1981, Baylor University published a community needs assessment for McLennan County, which stated teenage pregnancy was a major issue. Youth Connection was established in 1988. Nichols was hired as the executive director in 1991, and is the only staff member for the nonprofit.

Youth Connection is the only program in the nation that offers teen mother visits and a RealCare baby program at no cost to the youth or the schools.

For more information on ticket pricing for “Down on the Bayou”, or Youth Connection’s programs, visit their website.